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It was barely past nine in the morning, and on a day when many people reached for the snooze button on their phones, Pakistan were rolling into Supersport Park for a training session. Among them sat a 24-year old, perhaps already the crown jewel of Pakistan’s batting order, a man his side will rely on numerous times over the years to come. Babar Azam already carries himself like one aware of his importance in the Pakistan team, not least because the challenge he faces on Boxing Day is more demanding than any he will have experienced in his career.
Yet, just weeks ago, the hot takes declared Babar a white-ball chancer, only barely clinging on to a spot in Tests by dint of that limited-overs reputation. The claim was set on the basis of his average; before the first Test against Australia in October it was 28, but the technical foundations for a thriving long-form career were obvious.
“The innings I played in Ireland and England [back-to-back fifties in May] gave me a lot of confidence, because playing in and performing in those conditions changed my mindset to approaching Test cricket quite a bit,” Babar told ESPNcricinfo. “How to build your innings, how to survive, how to score runs etc. I took a lot from that experience and continued that in Dubai, and hopefully maintain that here too.”
There were complications in keeping up that good run of scores. Unbeaten on 68 in the first Test at Lord’s, he was struck on the forearm by a Ben Stokes bouncer, ruling him out of the tour. In just his fourth innings back almost five months later, he scored 99 against Australia, and that, for him, is when everything changed.
“When you continue to perform, your confidence level increases dramatically. Since then, I’ve been performing the way I wanted to perform. On the previous tour, I had aimed to score big and thankfully that’s what happened. It hurt me a lot to be dismissed on 99 against Australia but still, it gave me a huge amount of confidence. So in the next series, I just continued in that vein.”
Babar confirmed he will bat at No. 6 against South Africa, though didn’t quite go so far as calling it his favourite position. “That’s the role the team’s given me and I have to prepare myself to play there.”
For all the cricket that gets played these days, it is mildly surprising Babar has only ever played one international against South Africa, a rain-interrupted game at the Champions Trophy in 2017. He pointed out he had been here before on an Under-19 tour as well as a school tour, but acknowledged this was a different kettle of fish, and was eager to pick the brains of anyone who had superior experience of playing cricket in the country.
“[Head coach] Mickey [Arthur] and [batting coach] Grant [Flower] told us the first 20 balls are very crucial here,” he said. “If you play those out well, you will bat well. If, early on, you survive, it gets easier to bat and improves your opportunity of making a big score.
“Azhar Ali, too, advised us because there’s quite a bit of bounce on these wickets, and he told us a few ways to handle that since he’s played here before.”
Arthur himself pointed out the challenge was a technical one, particularly for players from Asia. “I think the key is – and this is true of a lot of subcontinent batsmen – that you must stay offside of the ball. Grant’s worked a hell of a lot with him on this. A lot of the subcontinent batsmen stay legside of the ball so we’ve worked really hard on getting these guys offside of the ball because that’s how you get the most control here.”
When it comes to Babar in particular, Arthur cannot help his effusiveness take over, insisting he never had any doubts the batsman would come into his own in Test cricket. “I’ve seen so many very good players knock the door down in ODI cricket, but when they come into Test cricket, they find it a different challenge. Test cricket’s called that because you get challenged physically, mentally and technically. In one-day cricket you can afford to get away with it a little bit.
“I read Babar has close to the best average of any Test batsman this year. That’s incredible, given where he was, and I’ve never doubted he’d get there. His talent and ability is second to none. All he needed was a breakout innings. His challenge now is doing it in South Africa, Australia, and he did well in the UK. This is the next step in terms of his development into the player we know he can be.”
Babar’s Test average this year is just a smidge under 60, second only to Kane Williamson (66.77) among players with over 500 runs in 2018. He may have taken his time adapting to the game’s longest form, but the clarion calls declaring his Test position precipitous now seem exceptionally misjudged.
But that level of class is tough to reconcile with his place in the batting order. “Of course No. 6 is not his long-term position,” Arthur said. “At the minute though, that’s where we need them. It’s a natural progression. I got castigated for batting him too high when Misbah and Younis were playing so there’s no winning with that argument. Let’s just let Babar develop in his game. Once he gets confidence, he’ll move up. He will be in the top four for Pakistan for along time to come. Let’s just let him find his feet first in Test cricket.”
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Tomorrow, he’ll continue the journey by facing two of the best fast bowlers in the world right now. “I’m looking forward to facing Steyn and Rabada,” Babar said. “I played Rabada in the Champions Trophy, but not Steyn. They’re great bowlers and I aim to play and do well against the best.”